Al-Ahram Weekly- 15 - 21 June 2000
Nadia Abou El-Magd
called Dr Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, a professor of Islamic studies, requesting
an interview, he said, "Why don't you come right away?" I
was in Amsterdam. He was
in Leiden, and we agreed to meet the following
day in Leiden. Abu Zeid gave me a warm welcome. My actual presence
in his home was, he explained, like "a part of Egypt coming to
see me." Abu Zeid has
not seen his homeland in the last five years.
On 14 June
1995, a Cairo Appeals Court for personal status litigation ruled
that Abu Zeid, then a professor of Arabic literature at Cairo University,
should be separated from his wife on the grounds that his writings
included opinions that make him an apostate. The verdict was based
on hisba, a doctrine that entitles any Muslim to take legal action
against anyone or anything
he considers to be harmful to Islam.
problems began when he applied for promotion to the post of professor.
He submitted two examples of his research, Imam Al-Shafei and
A Critique of Religious Discourse, to an examining committee. Abdel-Sabour
Shahin, a professor of Arabic linguistics and a committee member,
denied him the promotion and accused him of rejecting some fundamental
tenets of Islam.
appealed to the administrative court in 1993, but lost.
things went from bad to worse. His case became a cause c�lčbre
after a group of Islamist
lawyers filed a lawsuit at the end of 1993, demanding
the breakup of Abu Zeid's marriage to Ibtihal Younes, a lecturer
in French literature at Cairo University. The case was filed on the
grounds that a Muslim woman cannot be married to an apostate.
and his wife found themselves in the midst of national public scrutiny.
court threw out the case in January 1995, but it was accepted by
the Cairo Appeals Court which ruled in favour of the plaintiffs. The
marriage of Abu Zeid and
Ibtihal Younes was declared null and void.
the verdict came two weeks after Cairo University decided to promote
Abu Zeid to full professor. For many militant Islamists, the court
ruling was tantamount to a death sentence waiting for an executioner.
Abu Zeid's life was under grave threat.
the verdict was handed down, I was accompanied by a police guard
at every step," Abu Zeid said. "My last visit to Cairo
that was to take part in debating a PhD dissertation in the Faculty
of Arts, Islamic Studies
branch. The university was turned into a military fortress
to protect me. The question was, 'Will the university be able to take
these measures every time I went there to teach?' It was impossible
to teach like this and, at the same time, I could not imagine not
teaching. On the way home, I told Ibtihal, 'This is not going to work
out.' She nodded. If the
professor is not able to teach, we might as well save
the researcher. But a researcher can't function under guard either.
of our neighbours asked our guards why they were with us, they
responded, 'because of the kafir [the infidel].'"
On the eve
of 23 July 1995, the couple headed for Madrid, where Ibtihal was
to attend a conference. On the plane, Abu Zeid told his wife, "I
don't want to go
back to Egypt, to the siege." They decided that they would go
from Madrid to Leiden, where Abu Zeid had a standing offer to teach
at its prestigious, 16th
century university. "For the first time, we thanked God
that we don't have children." Abu Zeid said wistfully.
him directly, if he left Cairo because he was afraid for his life.
not afraid of death. What I'm afraid of is a disability that may result
from an assassination attempt, like what happened to Naguib Mahfouz."
laureate Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck by an Islamist militant
in 1994. The stabbing left Mahfouz, incapable of using his handto write.
Younes has been to Egypt several times since the separation order,
mainly to discuss MA and PhD theses at the French Department at
Cairo University. Abu Zeid has not been to Egypt since 1995, despite
invitations to attend
seminars and conferences.
my country, has been taken away from me. I always took pride in
playing a role, no matter how small it might be, in changing the way
of thinking in my country
through teaching. I have been denied this roleand thus I am denied the
opportunity to repay all my beautiful nation has
given me." Asked about his life in the Netherlands, Abu Zeid said
that for the most part
things were fine, "but I'm homesick. A friend of mine
who is a psychologist told me that I'm not living in Holland, but
inhabiting it. I still get
lost in Leiden."
filed a lawsuit last year against Justice Minister Farouk Seif El-
Nasr, demanding an annulment of the separation verdict. On Monday,
the Cairo Southern Court
of First Instance decided to postpone the hearings
until 31 July. In the interim, Abu Zeid will continue to teach at
the Islamic Studies
Department of Leiden University. He is currently lecturing
undergraduates in Qur'anic studies and offers a course about freedom
of opinion and expression in the Middle East. There are also a number
of graduate students conducting Master's and Doctoral research under
five years have changed Abu Zeid. Now bearded, Abu Zeid has lost
25 kilos since he left Egypt. His deep sadness is apparent in the
tears that crept into his
eyes more than once during the interview. His gaze,
his voice and his endless desire to keep talking about how much he
misses Egypt all testify to his discontent.
want to go and recite verses from the Qur'an at the grave of my father,
my mother, and my sister.
I want to visit the graves of my friends who have
died during my exile: Shoukri Ayyad, Ghali Shoukri, Lutfi El-Kholi,
Ali El-Ra'i and Fathi
Ghanem." When asked what he doesn't miss about his
homeland, Abu Zeid said, "I don't miss the fanatical atmosphere and
the hypocrisy at some
institutions. Some of the religious institutions are politically
motivated. I oppose the intervention of religious institutions in
the way we think."
victim of this "fanatical" atmosphere, it was important to
find out what he
thought of the latest controversy over A Banquet for Seaweed, a novel
by Syrian writer Haydar Haydar. The book was denounced as blasphemous
by Al-Azhar after the Islamist-oriented newspaper Al-Shaab spearheaded a
campaign against it and against the Ministry of Culture
for reprinting it. I asked Abu Zeid his opinion on the controversy.
Abu Zeid a while to respond. When he did respond, he said, "I'm
following moment by moment
the absurd discourse concerning Haydar's novel.
It is absolute insanity." He continued, "Where is the crime
here? Unless we
live in the Middle Ages, I believe that the big crime here is everybody's
wrongdoing: the government, the opposition, the Ministry of Culture
and the People's Assembly."
stressed the importance of a free and open dialogue between all
social, political and intellectual forces. Constructive social dialogue
is shut down once
the accusation of "apostate" or "traitor" is raised.
Abu Zeid explained
to me that he was influenced as a child by the ideology of
the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Though never committed ideologically,
he was imprisoned at the age of 12, for allegedly sympathising
with the group. "I was influenced by Sayed Qutb's ideas on
social justice, I always identify with the oppressed," he said.
rejects the accusation that he is anti-Islamic in any way. "I'm
sure that I'm a Muslim. My
worst fear is that people in Europe may consider
and treat me as a critic of Islam. I'm not. I'm not a new Salman Rushdie,
and don't want to be welcomed and treated as such. I'm a researcher.
I'm critical of old and modern Islamic thought. I treat the Qur'an
as a nass (text) given by God to the Prophet Mohamed. That text
is put in a human language, which is the Arabic language. When I said
so, I was accused of saying that the Prophet Mohamed wrote the Qur'an.
This is not a crisis of thought, but a crisis of conscience."
goes on, "I criticised the religious discourse and its social,
political and economic
manifestations, and this threatened the interests of
concluded, "I would like to tell the Muslim nation that I was born,
raised and lived as a
Muslim and, God willing, I will die as a Muslim."